The Sports Network
By Scott Haynes, Senior College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The post Tim Tebow Era begins in Gainesville this weekend, as the fourth-ranked Florida Gators open up their 2010 season at home against the Miami-Ohio RedHawks.
Florida returns plenty of talent from a team that went 13-1 in 2009, but the squad will be under careful scrutiny to see if it can remain among the nation's elite without one of college football's all-time greats leading the way. The 13 wins last year marked the second straight season with that many victories, making Florida the first team to do that in FBS history. Despite a new leader under center, the bar is still set very high for Urban Meyer's squad in 2010 both in the SEC and the big picture as a whole.
The Miami-Ohio Redhawks would like nothing better than to make a statement in this game and pull off a monumental upset, following a 2009 campaign that saw the team manage just one win against 11 defeats. It was certainly not the debut new head coach Michael Haywood envisioned and the hope is that a veteran group is ready to make some noise in 2010.
Last year the RedHawks were a one-dimensional team and a lack of a ground game (119th nationally) cost the team more often than not. A more run-oriented offense is on tap for 2010, and a committee of tailbacks will likely be used. Thomas Merriweather is the veteran of the group and led the team with a mere 291 yards in 2009.
A strength of the team will be up front, where four of last year's five starters return. The offensive line will be charged with protecting sophomore QB Zac Dysert, who is regarded as one of the MAC's top signal-callers. Despite the team winning just one game, Dysert flourished as a freshman last year, throwing for over 2,600 yards. If the ground game fails to materialize again, Dysert will find a way to get the ball down the field to senior wideout Armand Robinson. Robinson will be joined in the receiving corps by junior Chris Givens, who missed most of last season due to injury.
Assistant coach Alex Wood has inherited a talented group of receivers and thinks Robinson's work habits in particular will help him be even better this season.
"He's a really good inside receiver, a slot receiver. That's been his forte. He worked hard this spring to add another dimension to his role as an outside receiver. Hopefully, he'll be able to play inside and outside."
As a result of the poor play on offense, the Miami-Ohio defense struggled as well, as the team surrendered 34.2 ppg (108th in the nation). The real weakness was against the run, where foes gashed Miami for a whopping 186.9 ypg.
Mike Johns and Austin Brown return to the front line, but a lot is expected of freshman end Mwnza Wamulumba (6-3, 246), who earned a starting position with a strong spring. The most dangerous player on this defense is middle linebacker Jerrell Wedge. Wedge, who led the MAC with 18.5 TFLs this past season, is a disruptive player. The junior will be flanked by sophomores Evan Harris and Luke Kelly. The defensive backfield has the most experience, as three of the four starters return, including senior safety Jordan Gafford. Brandon Stephens is the most experienced cornerback, but youngsters like sophomore D.J. Brown and freshman Dayonne Nunley will be instrumental as well.
The eyes of the college football world will gravitate to Florida quarterback John Brantley this season, as he tries to replace Tebow under center. At the SEC Media Days, Meyer was asked if he is concerned about the scrutiny that Brantley will face.
"If he was a freshman or sophomore, we'd give a lot of thought to that," said the coach. "We have a real clear understanding of what John Brantley can do."
While he didn't see the field much behind Tebow, Brantley did complete 75 percent of his limited passes, for 410 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. He will be aided in 2010 by a number of playmakers on offense. Deonte Thompson had four receiving touchdowns a year ago and appears ready to take a step forward. As for Chris Rainey, a fellow junior, he is a true burner who is extremely versatile and will make the move to wide receiver after playing tailback. Listed as a tailback, Jeff Demps carried the ball 99 times for 745 yards and seven touchdowns last season, and he also possesses tremendous speed. With Rainey and Demps in the fold, Brantley can throw short passes and let his weapons do the rest. Three starters are back along the Florida offensive line, and while a couple of key cogs did depart, this unit should be among the strongest in the SEC, led by All-American candidate Mike Pouncey.
Florida has co-defensive coordinators heading into the 2010 season, and while that may seem a bit unorthodox, there is enough work to be done to keep both Chuck Heater and Teryl Austin busy. Six starters are gone from last season's stout defense that limited foes to a mere 12.4 ppg and 252.6 total ypg (fourth nationally in both categories). Clearly, this defense lost some stars, but the cupboard isn't exactly bare.
All-American candidate Ahmad Black, now a senior, is one of the nation's finest safeties. Fellow safety Will Hill will join Black in the secondary, as will cover corner Janoris Jenkins. Up front, the tackle position figures to be strong with Terron Sanders, Omar Hunter and Lawrence Marsh clogging the middle, although Sanders is listed as doubtful for the opener (knee). The key will be getting consistent pressure off the edges. The linebacking corps will miss All-American Brandon Spikes and it will be up to A.J. Jones, a senior, to spearhead the attack in the middle of the field.
Florida has won 20 consecutive season-openers and that streak is in little jeopardy this season. The RedHawks will struggle within the MAC this year and against a powerhouse SEC squad, they will likely get blown out.